Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Episode "The Body"
Broadcast February 27, 2001
"The Body" is one of the most mature examinations of everyday death I've ever seen on television, and certainly one of the most memorable episodes of Buffy. The episode recalls other moments in the series when Buffy has suddenly taken a left turn into M*A*S*H territory. The episode involves no plot other than the slow dissemination of and digestion of the news of the death of Kristine Sutherland's Joyce Summers.
The trick of the episode is that it moves in merciless, almost real time, and beginning with the first scene, in which Buffy discovers her mother's body on the sofa in the den. The camera doesn't shy away from showing us what Buffy sees: Joyce, pale and cold and vacantly staring. Buffy does everything we expect her to do; she calls EMS, can't quite remember how to do CPR, and moves as if somehow floating outside her own body.
This whole sequence, in which Buffy seems to be going through the motions of being conscious, is written with a keen sense of how people behave in traumatic situations. (The scene will be echoed repeatedly though the episode as different characters talk and seem to be slightly disconnected.) And over and over again we see Joyce, still very much dead. Although Buffy has shown bodies before, this episode could be disturbing for younger viewers-- it was disturbing for me, and I think it was one of the finest episodes of the series so far. What comes through most clearly in the sheer slowness of the episode is the lack of editing in life. Joyce is dead and we don't cut to commercial, we sit down and wander around the room and she's still dead, and will be forever.
Buffy's first memory when she finds Joyce is the sort of memory Thornton Wilder called the most painful: the least important. Buffy flashes to an utterly ordinary Thanksgiving dinner, the dialogue in which offers no double meanings or ominous portents, followed by another flash to the body. Buffy watches as arriving paramedics try to revive Joyce and fantasizes that Joyce survives, but soon the paramedics have another emergency call and leave Buffy to wait for the coroner. It's not until Giles arrives that Buffy heads out to tell Dawn at school.
Dawn has her own issues. We see Dawn's school life here for the first time as she and her best friend wander navigate what seem to be another series' worth of subplots (bully girl, hunky crush, art class)-- when Buffy arrives to tell her that their mother is dead. Dawn remains agitated and angry throughout the episode because she needs to see the body of her mother to be satisfied that what she has been told is true. She also can't verbalize this need, although she does ask if they're going to see her. Dawn finally does sneak into the morgue to see the body, which doesn't happen until after Buffy saves her from a random vampire. (It's almost daring that the show retains its Buffy-ness; there are still supernatural dangers all over the Hellmouth.)
Meanwhile, the rest of the Scooby Gang wander in the sort of daze most of us will recognize from such situations. I like that the individuals deal with the death with different but equal impotence. Xander is the angry one, double-parking despite the traffic police, punching walls, and cursing doctors. Anya is the child, not really knowing what to say, entirely new to death in a mortal world, only vaguely aware of what is appropriate to say. I liked her anger that no one will tell her what she's expected to do. Willow, meanwhile, sublimates her grief below an obsession with finding the right blouse to show her support for Buffy.
The coolest head is Tara, who keeps her stutter but tells Buffy she's navigated these waters before. Tara's mom died when the girl was 17, she tells Buffy. She even knows what's liable to trigger anger and says she knows Buffy's situation is different. She does a similar trick with Willow, offering to look for Willow's blouse long after Willow has lost all perspective. Tara tells Buffy that nothing she's likely to be feeling will make a lot of sense.
This is a fantastic episode, slow and painful, and very authentic. When I heard Joyce would be dying on Buffy I pictured typical action-show grief; chiefly a montage of Buffy on long drives. What we got, instead, was an episode that tries to drag us down into the few moments right at the beginning of grief. It's a fine picture, and a fine moment in television.